“Broaden women’s  choices”

In Asia, women are increasingly entering the formal labour market, but they tend to get low-paid jobs without institutionalised social protection. To improve the livelihoods of women, the main task is not to create more jobs, but better ones, says Shireen Lateef, gender expert at the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Interview with Shireen Lateef

According to a recent publication of the ADB, 50 % of Asian women and 70 % of men are working in formal employment. Does that mean that women work a lot less than men do?
No, definitely not. Women’s labour force participation is significant, both through productive work and household maintenance and family care. They earn incomes and work on family farms, growing their own food. Your numbers only relate to formal employment, not informal economic activity. What the data really tells us, is that a huge proportion of Asian women – more than men – are working in the informal sector. They are engaged in subsistence agriculture, self-­employed or busy in informal income generation. The sad fact is that the informal sector is less regulated, making women more vulnerable.

Why do fewer women enter the formal economy than men?
In part this is due to limited formal employment opportunities for women and in part to culture and tradition. Employment and income are traditionally seen as men’s domain. Women are considered secondary workers and income earners by both employers and the families. In the past, women worked mainly in agriculture or in the informal sector. But things are changing. Today, more women than men are entering the formal labour market in Asia. In absolute terms, their share of the formal jobs is still lower, but it is rising.

But wouldn’t it be sufficient if men generated income and women took care of the household, as tradition says?
Not integrating women into the formal labour market means wasting 50 % of a region’s human resources. According to recent reports, Asia is loosing at least $ 42 billion annually because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities and another $ 16 billion due to under-investment in girls’ education! But apart from such macroeconomic considerations, the simple truth is that only few families can really afford the luxury of living on a single salary.

Where are women most likely to find formal employment?
In Asia, the number of jobs in export-oriented industries such as garments is increasing, and these businesses mainly employ women. On the one hand, this is good news, because the companies create new economic opportunities for women and help to empower them. On the other hand, these jobs tend to be lower paid, more flexible, more precarious and have poorer working conditions, so women workers are more vulnerable to economic downturns. Even though women are rapidly entering the formal labour market, they still don’t hold decent jobs that provide security of income and good working conditions.

Why does the export-oriented sector have such a high demand for women workers?
Asia’s initial export-oriented industries were largely in the garment industry. This is traditionally seen as women’s work. Another area is the microelectronics industry, and women workers were perceived suitable because they have smaller hands and finer fingers. I imagine some factory managers might also prefer female workers because they tend to be more docile.

Why are workers in export-oriented industries more vulnerable than employees in other sectors?
Export-oriented industries depend on global demand, which is volatile. In downturns, factories either reduce production or shut down. Many export-oriented industries, moreover, are located where companies are not required to pay for social security services like health insurances. For example, the garment industry in Cambodia suffered because of the global economic downturn. Many factories shut down and women garment workers lost their jobs. They returned to their villages, where some created their own income-generating opportunities.

Does that mean that they become entrepreneurs?
There are definitely not many female entrepreneurs in the sense of controlling big companies. But there are a lot of self-employed women in Asia who are running their own small businesses or micro-enterprises. They generate their own income and sometimes even create jobs for one or two more workers.

What difference does education make?
Well educated women are better off. But they too struggle with gender disparities, for instance wage gaps. Even in countries where girls’ share in tertiary education is high – and they generally do better at school than boys – the boys will get better jobs. Unemployment rates are higher among young women than young men. One reason may be that the kind of skills women acquire during their training are less in labour market demand. Courses girls choose at school often result in limited career options.

How do the ADB’s educational projects tackle this problem? You probably don’t force girls to choose certain careers against their will.
No, of course not. We don’t try to talk them out of hairdressing and into ship-building. We give them opportunities to choose different courses of study and show them how to adapt to labour market demand. For instance, technical and vocational training programmes can provide career guidance for different sectors like tourism, hospitality or trades, where labour market demand is strong, so they can earn more money than in hairdressing. These days, a whole range of industries with better pay is emerging. Our programmes include scholarships for specific vocational training in these industries.

In Asia, strong emerging economies and rather poor countries co-exist close to one another. Is there significant labour migration?
Yes, of course. The Philippines is by far the biggest exporter of workers, but there are also a lot of Cambodians and Laotians who go to Thailand, or Indonesians working in Malaysia or the Middle East. The vast majority of these migrants are women. Their remittances are crucial for the foreign exchange funds of their country as well as of course for the maintenance of their families, especially in the Philippines. If fewer women worked abroad, poverty in these countries would be even worse.

What does the ADB do to promote women’s empowerment?
We support different types of programmes and projects targeting women’s empowerment, for example, education, water supply and sanitation, health, income-generation and microfinance projects. Small loans can help women to start their own micro-enterprises and generate incomes. ADB-supported projects also include business support and advisory services and capacity building. Some projects aren’t specifically geared to gender issues, but nevertheless positively affect the lives of women – like building roads or developing local markets. These projects generate jobs, provide easier access to schools, health centres, markets and improve the environment for women entrepreneurs. ADB gives advice to governmental authorities on how to implement reforms that reduce gender discrimination in the labour market. Furthermore, ADB-supported technical and vocational education projects aim at training girls in skills relevant to labour market demand.

Do gender issues play a role in the implementation of projects and programmes?
In most of our rural development projects, a certain share of the new jobs is reserved for women, and we promote equal pay for equal work. However, most of the jobs are in unskilled work, so they don’t improve the quality of women’s work. But at least they create income opportunities for women.

What do you advise governments to do? In spite of various legislative efforts, women do not have equal opportunities as men even in the most advanced nations.
Legislation is necessary but not sufficient for providing equal opportunities. However, it can trigger processes of change. We engage in policy dialogue on gender and labour market issues with governments. We discuss potential measures and policies, and can help governments to draft and implement policies.

Some sectors are very difficult to regulate.
Yes, factory jobs, and most of all domestic work. Many women, especially Filipina migrants, are working in private households. Their working environment is often precarious, though it highly differs from country to country and from family to family. In the Philippines, for instance, domestic work is well regulated: Employers have to pay social and health insurance. Not every employer obeys these rules, but that is no different in rich European countries – most private employers in Germany don’t pay for the social insurance of their cleaning woman, even though the law says they must. But the law has no teeth when the household helper is an illegal immigrant who has reason to fear contact with government authorities.

What would be best to make Asian women succeed?
For the sake of both male and female workers, the economy would have to broaden and to some extent change direction. Asia is sometimes seen as “the factory for the world”, producing goods to meet western consumer demand. If the region wants to move forward, it has to look at what added value can be created instead of simply relying on cheap exports for its growth.

Questions by Eva-Maria Verfürth.

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